Young man using tabletStock Photo: Julia M. Cameron/Pexels

How do you move the classrooms of over one million students from their schools to their homes? How do you ensure students that lack internet access aren’t left in the dark? These were the questions the New York City Department of Education, its schools and community based organizations were forced to answer.

On Thursday, March 12, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Mott Haven (MS223) closed after a parent alerted staff that their child tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first school in the city to close because of a coronavirus related issue. The school reopened the next day after city officials established the student did not have the disease.

The staff of the school along with Areté Education, a community-based organization that provides enrichment programming in the South Bronx, met to discuss a future in which their school might be closed for longer than 24 hours.

It was three days later when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools were closed for 1.1 million students in the city’s public school system.

The soaring number of cases and deaths left city and state officials scrambling to contain the spread and devise ad hoc solutions that would allow some semblance of the city’s routine ceremonies to continue.

As classes moved to distance learning, the economic disparities that exist within the school system became even more apparent. The challenge of adapting the largest school district in the country to the city’s shelter-in-place reality was made more difficult once the inequity of students who are unable to access a virtual classroom was factored in. Neighborhoods like Mott Haven, which has the lowest median household income in the city, bear a disproportionate share of students in need of digital access.

The New York City Department of Education estimated it would have to distribute 300,000 devices to students in need. The department’s chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, said the estimate was based on a number of modeling scenarios. The cold, calculated figure showed no sympathy for the chaotic state of affairs. There was no time to distribute devices in schools nor did the city have over a quarter million of them.

Families were asked to complete a survey of their needs for distance learning. The city would provide tablets loaded with learning apps and built-in LTE internet access. Sarah Benis Scheier-Dolberg, Executive Director of Areté Education, said the city prioritized those who were most in need; such as families in shelters. “Even if someone filled out one of those [surveys] a week and a half ago, they may be on a waitlist.”

The city promised to provide devices to all students in need but, given the circumstances, that would take time. Classes resumed remotely whether every student had access or not. The Department of Education sent learning packets to bridge the gap for those without internet access. For students, the packets were not the same as attending the virtual lessons with their classmates.

As the behemoth school system began its broad stroked approach to moving the classroom online, Areté attempted to fill in the spots with a finer tipped brush.

Before the school officially closed, Scheier-Dolberg and her team had already begun. They created Zoom accounts to meet remotely because they were unsure if they could return to the building.

Though Areté typically focuses on after school and summer programming, the staff understood the imperative to reassess their work. “In order to support the school community that we serve, we need to think about the basics,” said Sheier-Dolberg. She and her team endeavored with the school’s leadership to identify the consequences of their school closing. Without knowing how the city would respond to the pandemic, they considered how to address problems of access; access to food, access to doctors and access to internet.

“We’re also talking about families who have multiple children who are all trying to get on to these online sessions,” said Sheier-Dolberg. Children in a household may have classes scheduled for the same time. For families that have a single computer to share, parents would need to decide who gets to attend class. The decision becomes more difficult if someone must work from home.

The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology was proactive in its response to the threat of coronavirus. “They were starting to do contingency planning well before the false positive,” said John Garibaldi, a volunteer at Areté, of the school’s leadership. The school’s staff reached out to families, some of whom had a language-barrier, to assist with filling out the city’s technical needs survey while also taking stock of the devices they possessed.

Carranza said public schools were collectively able to loan 175,000 devices already on hand. The devices the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology had wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the number of its students that lacked a laptop or tablet, internet access, or both.

Garibaldi was part of a concerted effort to help fill in the gap of students in need. He contacted the school’s normal providers and made calls to others, some of which were either sold out or had limited quantities. The increased demand brought its own challenges.

As more schools closed across the country and moved to remote learning, demand increased. “Every school system in the world is ordering devices right now,” said Chancellor Carranza.

Mayor de Blasio had to speak with Tim Cook, C.E.O. of Apple Inc., in order to secure the 50,000 tablets needed to fulfill the city’s order.

Even with a much more modest invoice, Sheier-Dolberg could have used a direct line to the chief executives of tech companies. “I was able to get 35 from Amazon and 33 from Staples. Not a single one has been delivered, they’ve been held up,” she said. “You can’t place orders for more than one or two Chromebooks period. But even the ones we did order weeks ago, are just in Amazon and Staples purgatory of saying that they’re shipped, but there’s no tracking information.”

“It’s so difficult to acquire and get an inventory,” Garibaldi said. Despite the scarce market, he was able to secure 22 Boost Mobile hotspots that will provide WiFi to students who lack internet access. He said Areté and the school were able to secure the devices needed in the short term. He is coordinating with other schools in the area to put them in touch with suppliers that may still have inventory.

Areté is working on a distribution plan for this initial batch of devices. It will identify the students who are in need the most as well as a location that will require the shortest distance people will have to travel.

“We just have to play out multiple strategies all at once to try to come up with something to stem the tide of this very, very unequal education condition that we are finding right now,” she said.

Garibaldi said the schools have done a remarkable job adapting. “This system really is trying to do right by kids and families,” said Sheier-Dolberg. Requests to the school’s principal for comment were not answered.

While the city and community based organizations are taking steps to help families get online, those facing financial hardships can find obstacles when it comes to the private sector. Optimum, an internet service provider, was offering free 60-day free service to new customers with students who were now attending classes virtually. Mayor de Blasio excoriated the company Chalkbeat reported families with outstanding bills could not take advantage of the offer. Though after announcing they would waive the rule, some in Mott Haven have said Optimum has not stood by their word.

On April 11, de Blasio announced the city’s public schools would be closed the rest of the school year. He also revealed 240,000 students still don’t have the devices they need. The mayor said the goal would be for all students that have filled out a survey to have a device by the end of April.

Families that are still in need of devices for remote learning can visit to fill out the survey. It is available in nine languages. To call, dial 718-935-5100 and then press 5.

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